Gets My Vote

Saturday 12th July 2014. I watch Rebels of Oz, an excellent documentary on four Australians who influenced cultural life in Britain: Clive James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries, and Robert Hughes. There’s some 1960s footage of Ms Greer taking on Norman Mailer at a panel event in New York. The same event appeared in another documentary the previous week, one on the New York Review of Books. Then, the focus was on Mailer versus Susan Sontag, with Greer seen smirking quietly next to him. It’s a reminder that footage can only ever tell a truth, not the truth.

Robert Hughes was known for his TV series on art, The Shock of the New. But what shocks me is that he is shown wearing a double-breasted suit jacket over blue denim jeans. I wonder if being Australian helps.

* * *

Sunday 13th July 2014. Evidence of aging. At the Assembly House pub in Kentish Town, I pick up a leaflet for one of the events at the Forum, the venue across the road. It’s called ‘Indie Daze’, and is a day-long bill of different bands. All the performers are of a certain vintage, with their artistic zenith circa 1990. There’s The Wonder Stuff, The Popguns, The Flatmates, Jesus Jones, Power of Dreams, Darling Buds, and Ned’s Atomic Dustbin. Two of them are doing that common practice of performing an old album in full: Jesus Jones are playing all of Doubt, while Power of Dreams are doing Immigrants, Emigrants and Me.

What intrigues me about this leaflet is how some of the bands have accompanying photos of them now, looking older (they must be all approaching 50 by now). But others, like Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, use a photo from over two decades ago. I wonder about the reasoning: would a recent photo would be a kind of fraud, given it’s all about the songs of their youth? Or was it just a case of being unable to get new photos made in time?

I rather enjoyed the records of Ned’s Atomic Dustbin at the time, despite the polar opposite in their look to mine. They were a group of shambling, hairy and beery young blokes, and I was… well, not that. But I bought their debut album, and loved it for its vulnerably simple melodies, with a second bass guitar giving them an underrated, New Order-like sound. The Popguns, meanwhile, were much closer to my world aesthetically, on top of their fizzy and friendly guitar pop. Out of all the ‘Indie Daze’ bands, the Popguns are the only ones I still listen to.

* * *

Monday 14th July 2014. To Bildeston to see Mum. I stay over, sleeping in my childhood bedroom for the first time since Dad died. Mum offers to give me a file marked ‘Dickon’, full of school reports and other clippings, which she and Dad kept over the years. But I’m uneasy and decline. I’m uncertain enough about who I am now, let alone who I used to be. I don’t just mean that I need to get some sort of secure career going now, though I do mean that as well. Next visit, though. Little steps.

* * *

To get there, I take the Gainsborough Line train from Marks Tey to Sudbury, always a pleasure. A single track on a rural branch line, just the two carriages – though today they’re packed. The first stop, Chappel & Wakes Colne, forms part of the East Anglian Railway Museum. Vintage carriages and centuries-old waiting rooms suddenly appear either side of the modern train. After that it’s Bures, a village bisected by the Essex-Suffolk border, then it’s over the Stour river into Suffolk, and so to Sudbury.  Twenty minutes in all.

‘You missed the alpacas,’ says the old lady in the seat facing me.

* * *

Mum and I watch the DVD of the National Theatre’s 50th anniversary gala, along with the documentary that accompanies it. A highlight for me is Joan Plowright, reprising her speech from Shaw’s Saint Joan on the stage of the Old Vic, just as she did in 1963. There’s also a scene from Alan Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce, which I didn’t realise had supplied Dad with one of his in-jokey catchphrases. An older couple have a light snack in bed before lights off. This turns out to be pilchards on toast, the only thing the husband can find in the larder. The wife is sceptical at first, then takes his offered plate and tucks in. ‘They’re quite pleasant, aren’t they?’ she says. ‘They got my vote,’ says the husband, munching away. Tonight Mum tells me that she and Dad saw a 1980s TV version of Ayckbourn’s play, and it’s this particular line that Dad seized on. After that, whenever there was a situation requiring Dad’s approval, he would often say, ‘gets my vote!’ So now I know.

* * *

Tuesday 15th July 2014. Bildeston. Mum and I visit the Museum of East Anglian Life, in nearby Stowmarket. Neither of us have seen it since its renovation in 2012. The museum is centred around Abbot’s Hall, a handsome eighteenth-century manor house, which hosts a permanent exhibition about local history. George Ewart Evans, the author of Ask The Fellows Who Cut The Hay, gets a whole room, his notebook on display a la British Library. But there’s also his big manual typewriter and his unwieldy reel-to-reel tape recorder, both making a mockery of today’s nimble devices. Writing used to be such a muscular business.

The temporary exhibition is Escape to the Country: Searching for Self-Sufficiency in the 70s. It’s a wittily designed show, with lots of beige and orange in evidence, and caption boards in that same kitschy typeface that the band Pulp used. But there are some serious themes here too. It illustrates how the Summer of Love generation wanted to embrace rural traditions as a lifestyle choice, and as a reaction against the suburban sprawl. There’s a still from The Good Life, reminding one how that popular TV sitcom was also a satire about a real social concern.

One photograph is of the residents of Old Hall in East Bergholt, a proper commune where I once stayed as a teenager. It was just like the Swedish film Together: canteen meals for twenty at a time, farm animals and allotments out the back, rooms rather than flats. And rotas on the wall, with everyone having a different job to do on different days. I remember a TV crew filming the rounding up of the livestock, and the producer telling me it was for a documentary on a brand new channel – Channel 4. So that dates my stay to the summer of 1982.

[Postscript: Rachel Stevenson writes to say that she visited Old Hall in 2013, and wrote about it in her blog. The link is: http://millionreasons.livejournal.com/2013/04/23/]

On the train journey home I make a point of looking out for the famous alpacas. And there, a little south of Sudbury and east of the railway track, is a field of the uncommon mammals in question. They resemble llamas which have shrunk in the wash.

* * *

Wednesday 16th July 2014. To the ICA for the film Mistaken For Strangers. It’s an unusual film – a rock documentary that is really a study of two brothers. The band it depicts is the US group The National, whose work I’m not familiar with, but who seem to be a bit like the British band Elbow: a genre I call Pleasant Enough Men With Beards. In the film, the serious and sensitive singer Matt Berninger hires his jokey and more uncouth brother Tom to be a roadie on their new tour.  Tom is more interested in making a film, or drinking the rider, or disappearing with people he meets, or doing anything other than his job. And so the film he makes ends up being more about him, and his odd-couple relationship with Matt. I love the title in particular, which certainly applies to me and my brother Tom. But it also reminds me how pairs of brothers, even quite different brothers, tend to both be unconventional and artistic, rather than one being artistic and the other being more drawn to, say, finance or law.

* * *

Friday 18th July 2014. I’m listening to the new Morrissey album, World Peace Is None Of Your Business, while reading about the events in Ukraine and Gaza. Morrissey’s arch take seems grimly relevant. There’s WW1 events everywhere at the moment, with it being a hundred years since the shooting of Archduke Ferdinand. ‘The War To End All Wars’. And yet here we are, still getting out our missiles. The sickening pointlessness of the attack on flight MH17 feels different to any Cold War incident, though. It could be the incident to end all such incidents. I think. I hope.


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Muppet Socks

Friday 21st February 2014

Am starting to notice how a university degree re-wires the mind.  Before I took the course, to me all non-fiction was either commercial (ie books I could understand), or academic (books I couldn’t). Now academic books are finally opening up to me, and it’s like being able to read a new language. The flipside, though, is that I started to get impatient with a lot of commercial non-fiction, wincing at their generalisations and agendas.  But then I discovered that’s possible to switch reading levels, like switching between languages. One can then enjoy a commercial book on its own terms. There is a danger in calling a book ‘too light’ – such a phrase says more about the reader than the book.

Writing this down, I smile when I realise that this is more or less the plot of Educating Rita. Still, the message of Willy Russell’s play hasn’t changed: higher education doesn’t change people wholly – it gives them more options for approaching the world, which is quite different. A bigger toolbox.

Saturday 22nd February 2014

I meet with Mum in the basement café of Waterstones Piccadilly, in the old Simpsons building. It’s a rare example of a non-place being converted back into a place-place. The café used to be a Costa, but is now run by Waterstones themselves, decorating the walls with nice old book covers, rather than the corny photographs of continental bonhomie that can splatter the walls of every Costa everywhere. It may still be a franchise café, but any café which isn’t a Starbucks, Costa, Caffe Nero or Pret has a definite sense of being somewhere in particular, as opposed to nowhere in particular.

Mum and I have a vegetarian lunch at the Coach and Horses in Greek Street. At the table next to us is a group of young Japanese women using their smartphones to take photos of their afternoon tea.

Then we go on to the National Portrait Gallery. The David Bailey exhibition is sold out, so we take a look at the permanent collection instead. The unflattering painting of Kate Middleton – the one which makes her look 50 – is displayed more matter-of-factly than I’d thought, tucked within a row of other portraits and not very well-lit.

We also stumble on an engrossing mini-exhibition about Vivien Leigh. I’m reminded that even though Gone with the Wind is meant to be the most successful film in the UK ever (going by sales of cinema tickets), I have yet to get around to it myself. That and St Paul’s Cathedral: on the list of things one is assumed to have done, but which the same assumption puts one off doing.

Sunday 23rd February 2014

My anxiety over the funeral hits me so hard that I spend the entire day in bed, trying to get over excruciating stomach pains.

Monday 24th February 2014

Dad’s funeral. I brave the morning rush hour Tube in order to get to Tom’s place on time, and am staggered by the awfulness of what must be a daily experience for so many. Not only do people have to brave the train journey with strangers bodies’ pressed against them throughout, but the journey itself is delayed at each stop, due to the mass of passengers preventing the doors closing on the first go. Whatever the rewards of being a rail commuter must be (a decent salary? a house?), to me they can’t possibly be enough. A commuter friend once told me, ‘You just get used to it’.  I don’t think I ever could.

So I go from the lack of respect for bodies per se, to paying respects to one particular body. Mum has insisted on no dress code, but I’m in a three-piece black suit and black tie anyway, because that’s me. I add a seahorse brooch, though, in case I’m mistaken for one of the crematorium staff.

Tom drives me to Bildeston to meet with Mum and Uncle Mike (Mum’s brother), and we all get into a hired people carrier. It’s then that I see Dad’s coffin for the first time, in the back window of the hearse in front of us.

Fittingly, it’s a cardboard coffin, looking just like one of Dad’s many boxes of comics in the loft. It also has a base made from the same sort of hardboard that Dad used, when he built scenery for Tom and myself to play with as children; rocket ships and puppet theatres. One of Mum’s homemade quilts covers the coffin, a beautiful science-fiction themed work with planets and stars. ‘I’m having that back before the actual burning,’ says Mum about the quilt. ‘It’s too nice!’

Seeing the coffin for the first time is the first of several moments when I nearly, but not quite, burst into tears.

We arrive at the crematorium at Nacton, near Ipswich. Then we get out and walk behind the pallbearers with the coffin, into the chapel. Unexpectedly, all the seats are taken: standing room only for Dad.

The Humanist host of the ceremony, Chris, does most of the reading. Then I follow with my own eulogy. At Mum’s request, it’s based on extracts from my diary, but I’ve added some of the liner notes from the Fosca album The Painted Side Of The Rocket, the album which features myself and Tom together. I wanted to make the point about creativity being something children do naturally, and which adult artists have to do on purpose. A quality of childlike unselfconsciousness – something Dad manage to manifest easily throughout his life, in both his art and his personality.

Then I read from the diary entry about Dad’s death, ‘Seeing Dad’, and I very nearly break down, twice. But only nearly.

We file out to ‘Monster Mash’, as promised. Dad’s favourite song, ‘Macho Man’ by the Village People, then follows on, with its opening line of ‘Body! Wanna feel my body, baby!’

Both are very silly records indeed for a funeral, and Dad, a fan of Joe Orton and Family Guy, knew this more than anyone else. We put little explanations about the choices – or warnings, rather – into Chris’s reading and mine, so one hopes the mourners understood.

* * *

In the courtyard outside the chapel, the mourners gather to chat. The first thing spoken to me after the service is, ‘Look! Muppet socks!’

A man in his seventies has collared me. He slips off his loafers to show off, yes, his Kermit the Frog socks. This turns out to be one of Dad’s schoolfriends from Clacton, a jokey gang raised on The Goon Show and who, like Dad, have managed to extend their in-jokes down the decades. One of them is wearing a luminous high-vis jacket: whether it’s for cycling or an outdoors day job I’m not sure, but it’s certainly a sign his own body has some years to go yet.

‘I’ll come visit you’ says one to the other as they part.

‘I don’t like threats’, says the other, deadpan.

Afterwards there’s sandwiches and tea at Chamberlin Hall, the new village hall in Bildeston. I chat with cousins I’ve not seen for decades, and some I’ve not seen full stop. Some live in Brighton, some in London, some in Sussex. There’s also people who babysat me in the village, or taught me in the local schools, and indeed the woman who helped Mum with Baby Dickon things when I was born, doing the sort of job that (I think) is now called a doula.

‘Do you remember me?’ is something I’m asked a lot. And for the most part, I do. Sometimes I don’t, and probably make a mess of pulling the right expression.

I still don’t know how I’ll be different now he’s gone. It’s still too soon.

In the evening, Tom drives me back to London.

Thursday 27th February 2014

Tom has made a little video memorial for Dad. It’s made up of photos of Dad (sometimes with me as a child), along with examples of his art. The soundtrack is an original instrumental written and performed by Tom:

http://youtu.be/PrvNFktrYpc


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On Camp: Gaga v Perry

Saturday 28th December 2013. To Bildeston to visit Mum and Dad. Dad is pretty much the same as he was the month before: restricted to either the sofa or the bed in the living room, still relying on an oxygen mask and round-the-clock care. But he’s also still very chatty, enthusing about the latest escapist films on DVD, his Christmas presents from the family: Iron Man 3, Man of Steel. ‘I’m still that boy buying the first issue of Eagle comic’.

What he never watches is that baffling default prescription for the bedbound, the type piped into hospital wards at the request of no one sane: daytime TV. No fan of Bargain Hunt, my father.

I make myself useful by organising Dad’s DVD collection, gathering them from several scattered piles around the house into a single cabinet downstairs, then arranging them into alphabetical order. He has about 150. We wonder where best to file The Amazing Spider-Man, the recent big screen frolic starring the nervy Andrew Garfield (who really should play the young David Byrne if there’s ever a Talking Heads biopic). Should it go under ‘A’ for Amazing, or ‘S’ for Spider-Man, given that Dad also has the Tobey Maguire triptych of a few years ago? We agree on the latter. Keep all the Spider-Men in one place, and hope that Mr Maguire will not take the implication personally that he is officially… Not Amazing.

(As I type this up, a real spider dangles down from the ceiling onto my hand. It’s a thin greenish little thing, certainly not one of those False Widow spiders that the British newspapers got so aroused about last year. This one sadly has not bitten me and so I remain without a hyphenated secret identity. I have now carefully relocated the interloper to the outdoors, via the time-honoured dance of Mr Tumbler and Ms Nearest Piece of Paper. Before I go on, though, I think I should type the words ‘unmarked fifty pound notes’ and ‘Tom Daley’ in case they too need to fall from above. Nothing. )

* * *

Sunday 29th December 2013.  End of year lists. My heroes of 2013: Young Ms Malala, obviously. The brave Mr Snowden too. Closer to home: Ms Jack Monroe, the food blogger turned fearless anti-poverty campaigner. And also Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP. For her involvement in the protest against fracking (for which she was arrested), for being asked to cover up her ‘Ban Page 3’ shirt in a Commons debate, and for voting ‘yes’ to the food bank investigation and ‘no’ to MPs getting a pay rise. I know I’m biased, but Russell Brand’s calling for people to not vote seems unfair on the MPs who are trying to change things for the better. Though admittedly, they’re not quite as visible as he is.

* * *

Monday 30th December 2013.  Shamefully, I waste time on Twitter as a distraction from writing an essay on Anglo-Saxon poetry. Still, I hope I am redeemed  when I provide the author Sarah Churchwell with a dull but useful tip about how to copy text from a Kindle e-book (you use the ‘Kindle for PC or Mac’ program, open the book within it, use the ‘search’ facility to locate the passage, then copy and paste as normal). Ms Churchwell wrote Careless People, one of my favourite books of the year, about the influences behind The Great Gatsby. She tweets back that the tip worked for her, with thanks. I know so little about computers that supplying this mundanity, and hearing it was of use, makes my day.

A second good deed on Twitter: Ms Amber, whom I slightly know from the world of dressed-up London parties, asks the Twitter world for serious definitions of ‘camp’. Ideally, not from the over-quoted Susan Sontag essay.

I offer two: ‘The lie that tells the truth’ from the title of Philip Core’s 1980s book. And ‘a charging of the tension between performance and existence’, from Gary McMahon’s 2006 book Camp in Literature.

The trouble then is that I find myself distracted from the essay with my own musings on the subject. Is Lady Gaga a ‘Queen of Camp’, for instance, as some quarters have described her? Using the McMahon definition, I’d say no. There’s no ‘charging of the tension’, no wink, no knowing smirk. For her, performance is existence. But she may become camp as she gets older, because age ups the tension. A case in point is Grace Jones: all Gaga-esque performance when she was young, now very much camp. Katy Perry, on the other hand, is camp. She has that charged quality of self-awareness, finding the line where the self meets the performance, and then exaggerating it. That’s camp.

All this comes to me when I should be thinking about translating Old English from the Exeter Book.

* * *

Tuesday 31st December 2013. I meet with Laurence Hughes, up from Oxford. Mulled wine at The Flask in Highgate Village. He thinks I should take the academic thing further, doing a Masters and so on when I graduate. He says I ‘look’ the part of an academic. Perhaps in my case it’s just the air of an inability to cope with the physical.

At home, I work on the essay, then take a Nytol sleeping tablet, put in earplugs, and sleep through the fireworks. It’s the happiest New Year’s Eve I’ve had for some time.

* * *

Wednesday 1st January 2014. I start the year by appearing in the Guardian, to my surprise and squealing delight.

Or rather, I appear on the Guardian website, as the article in question is not in the printed newspaper (I buy a copy to check). Funny how prepositions work with new technology. It’s in the paper, but on the website. Or in an article on a website. Anyway.

The article is Travis Elborough’s Top 10 Literary Diarists. Here’s the link:

http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jan/01/travis-elboroughs-top-10-literary-diarists/print

I am included along with Samuel Pepys, Alan Bennett, Elizabeth Smart and Virginia Woolf.

* * *

Thursday 2nd January 2014. A few weeks ago I reviewed a graphic novel by Oscar Zarate, The Park, for The Quietus’s comics round-up column. The book is set mostly on Hampstead Heath. Here’s the link:

http://thequietus.com/articles/14192-behold-december-quietus-comics-round-up-column

Having been reminded about Elizabeth Smart’s diaries by the Travis Elborough article, I look them up at The London Library today. The first volume, Necessary Secrets, is a work of art, reading more as fully-formed literature than as a hastily jotted-down journal. It’s so close in style to her novella By Grand Central Station I Sat Down And Wept that it deserves to be considered on the same level. Yet it’s been out of print for over twenty years. I recall how the Morrissey song ‘Late Night Maudlin Street’, from his album Viva Hate, is full of quotes from By Grand Central. No mention of Ms Smart’s influence in his Autobiography, sadly.


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